A rare imam who juggles fatwas, interfaith confabs

Sheikh Ishaq Abdel-Jawad Taha issues scores of religious rulings every day to average Palestinians and also participates in interfaith dialogue with Israelis.

Ilene R. Prusher/The Christian Science Monitor
Mr. Advice: Sheikh Ishaq Abdel-Jawad Taha fields calls about applying Islam to daily life.

Sheikh Ishaq Abdel-Jawad Taha's phone is ringing off the hook.

"You're welcome, go ahead," says Sheikh Taha, sitting behind his desk at the Palestinian Authority's Al-Fatwa Council, of which he is the director. "She's still recovering, so she doesn't have to pray," he says.

The voice on the other end of the phone is that of a man, asking if his wife – who recently gave birth by Caesarean section – is required to return to five-times-daily prayers.

While a fatwa is often equated in the West with extremism, in the East it's simply a religious guideline that can be useful in daily life, especially for those who know whom to call for a ruling that fits the context of a reasonable Islam.

That's where Taha comes in. His council dispenses advice across the Palestinian territories, and across the party lines of rival Fatah and Hamas factions. While he commands much respect among Muslims, Taha is pushing boundaries for his ongoing conversations with others – the Israelis.

Taha is involved in dialogue forums and meetings with both Christians and Jews: a controversial practice since many of his colleagues deem such meetings as normalization, which is frowned on here and across the Arab world in the absence of a settlement to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

On one recent evening, for example, he met with an Israeli-Jewish group in a West Jerusalem neighborhood, and talked alongside a prominent rabbi on the subject of forgiveness in the Koran and the Torah. Organizers of the event said that Sheikh Taha's appearance was sensitive, and therefore asked that it not be covered by journalists.

Later, Taha explained his position: He does such meetings in his personal capacity, because an official visit would require a stamp of approval from the highest levels of the Palestinian Authority (PA). Nonetheless, he decided to yield on his official silence about such meetings.

"Had I not been convinced that these events help bring peace, I would not have attended," says Taha, an affable man who wears a trim white beard and a red-and-white headcovering that comes from the Fatamid period, and which signifies he is a distinguished scholar entrusted with legislating Islamic law.

"I look at it as an experiment," he says. "The questions that came up showed how much people misunderstand Islam."

Not all Islamic scholars here feel the same, but he's fine with pushing the envelope – at least somewhat.

"I don't care what people say about me," he says, his face spreading into a wide grin. "I'm following prophet Muhammad's ways, who met with Jews and Christians regularly. I'd like to mix more with nationalities. I feel an office like this one should not be operating behind closed doors."

To that end, he makes sure that the council's decisions get publicized in local newspapers and in other forms of media, and that there's a number through which to make anonymous queries – a sort of dial-a-fatwa – like that of the man who wanted to know if his wife should resume praying.

That request, he says, was actually about something more.

What the man was really asking is whether he can expect his wife to return to normal sexual relations with him: If she's able to do fulfill one duty, the logic goes, she also fulfill others. Taha's answer: No.

"He asks this way," he explains, "but it's a way of getting an answer to the question he really asked."'

Such are the gymnastics involved in being a flexible religious authority who wants to uphold the values of the Koran and make it easy for people to get the religious guidance they seek.

"They consider me a modern sheikh. I'm very proud of that," Taha acknowledges, before reaching for one of the huge black-and-white binders where he keeps questions up for discussion. Almost like a presiding Supreme Court judge, he collects questions that have been submitted to him from around the country, in this case, the West Bank and Gaza.

Above and beyond fielding calls from the public, he oversees a council of 24 other religious scholars to whom he distributes a kind of dilemma du jour, giving each expert two weeks to think and research before coming to a ruling.

Despite the political split between the two territories since Hamas took over the Gaza Strip in June 2007, he says the system is still working: He has a number of Islamic religious authorities who are loyal to the Al-Fatwa Council, not Hamas.

Elana Rozenman, who runs an interfaith women's group called Emun-Trust, was instrumental in bringing Taha for the evening of discussion and learning, along with Rabbi Daniel Landes, the head of the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies.

"Anytime a Muslim sheikh at his level and in his position of prominence is willing to meet with and teach with someone like Rabbi Landes, it's a very encouraging sign in general, and it shows specifically that he's a very unique individual," Ms. Rozenman says.

Their first official meeting began in March, when he agreed to participate in such a bilateral study evening after the shooting deaths of eight Israeli students by a Palestinian gunman at a Jerusalem yeshiva. The meeting was charged – and the room was packed. "We jump-started the partnership at that point," Rozenman says.

On the one hand, such groundbreaking work makes him one of the more temperate imams in Middle East. On the other, on some issues involving women, he rules in a way that would probably make the average American feminist apoplectic.

Some of the recent questions that have come in, for example, address whether it's OK for a woman to travel alone. Their ruling: only for up to 80 kilometers (50 miles), based on the fact that in days of yore, the limit was three days and three nights.

A particularly interesting question in the docket asks how much a woman is permitted to "reveal" to a suitor who's interested in asking for her hand in marriage. His answer: everything must be covered except her face, hands, and feet.

"Others say she should show her neck," he explains, reading through the specifics of question. He's sent it out to eight others – a third of the council.

"This inquiry came about because people want to know," Taha says. "Some men want to see the beauty of their intended's hair, or see whether she is fit underneath her cloak. It's a problem because if he doesn't want to propose, and she agrees to be seen with no head covering, she's exposed herself to a stranger."

His opinion sounds ultraconservative, but to others, there's a wisdom in it. "I say you can only show what is allowed, the face and the hands and feet, because I don't want to give a chance to irresponsible people to make fun of women or take advantage of that option." This call for modesty, he notes, is very different from how things look in countries such as Saudi Arabia, where sharia, or Islamic law, rules.

"Here, fatwa is not a law," he says. "It is a sacred order for whomever wants to commit himself or herself to it."

Among those who do, in various ways, are his wife and their 14 children, seven sons and seven daughters.

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